On Thursday evening, The MBS Group was honoured to host an event with our partners LocalGlobe on the potential for data to change every aspect of life as we know it.
At Google UK’s stunning King’s Cross headquarters, we brought together more than 70 senior executives from the worlds of retail, private equity, government and venture capital, to discuss how artificial intelligence, machine learning and data science will make or break their institutions in the coming years. Our title was ‘The New Oil: Unleashing the Power of Data’.
But first, a fascinating statistic: since the 1st January 2017, more data has been created than the total amount created in the past 5,000 years. Not only that, of that infinite pool of numbers, statistics, habits and personal preferences, it’s estimated that the proportion that is actively being analysed at present stands somewhere between just 0.5 and 10%.
With such an incomprehensibly large database still left to mine, and technological capability accelerating at exponential pace, the opportunities to radically transform the world through data are practically endless.
The founders of three of LocalGlobe’s most exciting data-centric portfolio companies – Marc Warner of ASI Data Science, Tugce Bulut of Streetbees and Ankur Modi of StatusToday – demonstrated how their businesses are able to generate and analyse enormous corpuses of data at rapid speed, and then (crucially) devise tangible strategies that instantly and drastically improve efficiencies and reduce costs. And we’re talking millions of pounds, across any sector, deployed in seconds.
Indeed the room was in awe as Marc laid out the transformational impact that data is already having across every conceivable industry. ASI specialises in helping organisations to drive business value using artificial intelligence and big data, and he was not short of figures to show how all companies could give their bottom lines a significant boost by simply tapping the data they’re already sitting on.
“In six weeks a smart PhD student was able to increase the number of opens on an internet marketing firm’s emails by 50%,” said Marc. “With a fraud detection algorithm, we could save a big payments company in China $7m a year – just by using automated algorithms rather than people. In operations, by tweaking the amount of surplus staff that an airline had available at any one time, based on the actual number of people likely to take sick leave on that particular day, over the course of a year we could save them £20m.”
The idea that any business can use continuous advances in machine learning to turn enormous volumes of unstructured data into valuable insights is hugely exciting. Marc argued that we need no longer look solely to the giants of Silicon Valley for inspiration – particularly as the UK data and tech scene expands and thrives.
“Silicon Valley lives in a bubble – if you go over and spend any time with Silicon Valley people, you will very quickly realise that,” he said. “Our advantage here in London right now is that you can cycle 20 minutes in one direction and get to the centre of government – or cycle 20 minutes in another direction and get to the centre of finance. That’s simply not something that exists in Silicon Valley.”
Tugce at Streetbees also explained how her company’s innovative use of AI and geolocation technology has changed the way large corporates think about market research and data. Streetbees hires local ambassadors in locations around the world, asking them to upload pictures and videos of them interacting with branded products on apps such as WhatsApp. Conversations are steered to achieve brands goals, before AI is used to process the results and deliver actionable insights.
“We believe that traditional market research, and how [businesses] used to ask people questions, is no longer the best way to understand people,” Tugce said. “We went in front of a multi-billion-dollar food company and said ‘you know what, there might be another way to get to the results you want. It’ll be cheaper, it’ll be faster and most importantly it will be accurate’. That was where our first discussion began.”
“Traditional market research is no longer the best way to understand people” – Tugce Bulut, CEO of Streetbees
This drive to redefine the way big business thinks about its data is also at the heart of StatusToday’s model. The firm uses AI to process internal employee data, thereby enabling businesses to understand behaviours, simplify team management and detect risks and security threats.
Ankur, who was formerly a software engineer at Microsoft before leaving to set up StatusToday, suggested that the enormous business potential of these emerging technologies is drawing some people away from the big tech giants towards smaller, innovative startups.
“I left Microsoft because for me it was actually more exciting to leave,” he said. “In our team we’ve got people from pretty much all enterprise backgrounds. The single reason they join us is because it’s just that exciting.”
In the panel discussion that followed, chaired by LocalGlobe’s partner and co-founder Saul Klein, presenters and guests discussed the potential risks around data and artificial intelligence.
Not surprisingly, a huge range of issues came up for discussion – from the question of who ultimately ‘owns’ data and the role of governments and nation states, to the issue of data security and the risks businesses face from hacking, to the challenge of ensuring the right consumer permissions are in place so that brands are acting with transparency at all times. Of course the introduction of GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) next year informed some of this discussion.
When asked about their biggest fear, the variety of responses from the panel highlighted the huge range of issues that companies today should be thinking about. For Ankur it was the challenge of “staying objective”, given that AI has a tendency to assume the biases that human beings already hold – and perhaps reinforce them. For Tugce, it was the role of technology in lowering the barriers to market entry – and how different countries can maintain standards of compliance as more and more startups emerge.
For those who know him, it will have been no surprise to hear that Marc’s biggest fear was particularly apocalyptic. “I’d say I’m most worried about the complete extinction of the human race within 10 years.” He wasn’t joking. If human beings fail to build in safety mechanisms for AI super-intelligence (a self-improving intelligence that will accelerate beyond human intelligence), the results will be catastrophic, Marc warned.
The key takeaway for individuals and organisations – regardless of whether you believe AI will outgrow human intelligence and destroy humanity as we know it – is clear. “Digital transformation” won’t cut it anymore. Hiring a “digital native” or “tech savvy” executive won’t either.
The companies who survive this – the largest shake-up of the status quo since the last industrial revolution – will be those who understand that what’s required is ‘Total Transformation’.
It’s not so much that “we’re not in Kansas anymore”. This is a totally new planet, and one whose success stories – be they companies, organisations, individuals or nation states – will all share the commonality of successfully harnessing the unparalleled power of data.